The Animal Welfare Act: Lifeline for Some Lab Animals Turns 50

The animals were kept on a former dairy farm in Gainesville, Virginia, where there was no heat, windows were broken, water pipes had frozen up, and dead dogs remained among the live ones. Some of the dogs died of distemper; others who contracted distemper were “destroyed.” Some were shot. The bodies of several hundred dogs, cats, and rabbits were found in massive trenches about 70 feet long behind the barn. The operation was uncovered by a neighbor who had lived next door. She described how “just a little wind would make you sick” because of the stench of rotting bodies. It was 1963, and the company, Zoological Worldwide, Inc., had been in the business of selling animals to medical schools and research laboratories, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Bethesda Naval Hospital, and Johns Hopkins University. The NIH had inspected and approved this operation. It routinely bought animals, with the last purchase occurring less than 10 days before a front-page story publicly exposed the cruelty.

Such appalling conditions were not rare, but rather the norm. AWI reported on the situation at another large dealer’s premises, this one supplying animals to New York laboratories, including a large medical school: “A narrow, dimly lit corridor separated two rows of pens. Each pen was jammed with dogs of all sizes. There must have been forty dogs in a pen big enough for only five or six. The dogs’ coats were matted with filth, and the dogs were crawling all over each other trying to get out. … The big dogs trampled the little ones, and some of the small ones were lying on their sides, motionless. There was no ventilation. The pens had not been cleaned and the air was suffocating. I saw one poodle with a deep, bloody gash in his side. There was no food or water in any of the pens.”

AWI staff also visited laboratories during the 1950s and early 1960s. They saw dogs confined in cages three tiers high, with bigger dogs unable to hold their heads normally or stand without their backs rubbing against the cage tops, as well as various other animals in cages that were too small for them to stand or lie normally. Animals were not provided with water. Cages were filthy and when they were hosed, it was with the animals in them; those in poor condition who couldn’t move out of the way were hosed, too. Some were sick and coughing, with runny noses and wounds. The quarters were infested with cockroaches and wild rodents. Animals were repeatedly used in painful procedures–often without anesthetics. Post-operative animals were put back in cages with no pain relief, oversight, or additional care. Moribund animals were left to suffer and die.

The Uphill Battle for Reform

The lack of a federal law to prevent such terrible conditions for animals in research motivated AWI to seek legislation. However, the research industry, led by the National Society for Medical Research (NSMR), was loath to admit there was a problem. (Opposing AWI’s efforts, the NSMR actually compared the organization to Machiavelli, Hitler, and Stalin.) Researchers claimed that any changes would be costly to implement and have a negative impact on the research. The industry claimed it could keep its own house in order. (Frankly, it was willing to say and do whatever was necessary to prevent passage of legislation.)

Although a number of bills were introduced in the early 1960s, none moved forward. Then, the November 29, 1965, issue of Sports Illustrated ran a piece that brought the issue wide attention. The article detailed the story of a Dalmatian named Pepper who had disappeared from her yard in the Pennsylvania countryside. Dogs were being stolen to supply the demand for specimens at research facilities. Shortly after her disappearance, Pepper’s owner—while in a hospital recovering from a heart attack—recognized his missing dog in a local newspaper’s photograph of an animal dealer’s overcrowded truck. His wife and children went in search of their dog but were denied entrance to the dog dealer’s premises. US Representative Joseph Resnick (D-NY) was contacted and was also denied entrance to the dog dealer’s property. Tragically, by the time she was located, Pepper had been sold for research and killed following a surgical procedure at Montefiore Hospital in New York. Infuriated, Rep. Resnick introduced a bill requiring that dog and cat dealers, and the laboratories that purchase and experiment on the animals, be regulated and inspected by the US Department of Agriculture.

A second pivotal article on the procurement of dogs for sale to experimental laboratories was made possible after AWI’s founding president, Christine Stevens, convinced Henry Luce, then owner of Life magazine, that it merited coverage. The piece, titled “Concentration Camp for Dogs,” ran in the February 4, 1966, issue of Life. It documented the horrendous conditions at an animal dealer’s premises in Maryland and included huge photographs that were graphic and disturbing. One showed a cowering dog who was nothing but skin and bones (the same dog shown on the cover of this issue). A massive public outcry followed. In fact, this story inspired a record number of letters to the magazine.

Congress was pressed into action and, at long last, legislation moved through both houses. The Laboratory Animal Welfare Act (later renamed the Animal Welfare Act) was signed into law on August 24, 1966, by President Lyndon Johnson. The new law set minimum standards of care and housing for dogs, cats, primates, rabbits, hamsters, and guinea pigs in the premises of animal dealers and laboratories. It required identification of dogs and cats to prevent theft, and required dealers to be licensed and laboratories to be registered.

Adding to the Animal Welfare Act

Various amendments broadened and strengthened the law over the years—always with significant pushback by industry and monumental effort by the humane community, grassroots activists, and sympathetic members of Congress. But by the early 1980s, it was clear that additional measures were needed for animals in research. A huge battle ensued—one that was surely as daunting as the effort to get the original law passed. When the research industry called for more study instead of immediate action (a not uncommon delaying tactic), AWI representatives countered with two large binders filled with data supporting the urgent need for the legislation.

Seven bills were considered at a 1981 hearing in the House of Representatives. Just a few days earlier in Silver Spring, Maryland—not far from Capitol Hill—Dr. Edward Taub was the subject of the first police raid against an animal researcher in the United States and the first seizure of abused animals from a lab. He was charged with 17 counts of animal cruelty and 6 of failing to provide needed veterinary care to monkeys subjected to deafferentation studies.

The photographs from the laboratory were horrific. The monkeys were confined in small, barren, filthy cages. Many had open wounds and more than a few were missing multiple fingers where they had self-mutilated. There was virtually no veterinary care. Initially, Taub was found guilty of 6 counts of animal cruelty, but his conviction was overturned on the grounds that Maryland’s animal cruelty law did not apply to a federally funded laboratory.

In 1982, Senator Robert Dole (R-KS) introduced the Improved Standards for Laboratory Animals (ISLA) amendments to the Animal Welfare Act and chaired a hearing on the measure—where he stated, “Humane treatment of lab animals will yield better scientific results and a greater return on the money spent for research. I believe my bill represents a responsible and logical approach to addressing the public’s legitimate concerns.”

In 1984, Representative George Brown (D-CA), sponsored and chaired a hearing on a House companion version of Sen. Dole’s bill. “I have been one of the more active advocates and supporters of science in this House,” he stated in his testimony. “However, I feel that we cannot allow any field, whether it be defense, science, or any others, to be free from scrutiny or improvement. I feel strongly that while medical research is vital to the health of our society, we must accept the responsibility which comes with using live animals. We should ensure that needless suffering is eliminated.”

The hearing room was filled to overflowing and there was much media attention because of recent revelations and footage of horrendous mistreatment of baboons used in head injury experiments at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine—where a hydraulic device was used to slam animals’ heads at tremendous force to study head trauma. Footage from the lab revealed animals arousing from anesthesia during surgery, researchers smoking cigarettes and pipes while conducting surgery, and post-head-injury monkeys with helmets cemented to their heads, having them removed using a hammer and screwdriver. The students who worked in the lab made fun of the animals and seemed oblivious to their suffering.

By 1985, the NSMR had merged with the Association for Biomedical Research to become the National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR)—an organization adept at creating barriers to passage of new humane requirements for animals in research. First, NABR proposed a list of 16 changes; once these were addressed, a new list of 32 proposed changes appeared. Sen. Dole, now majority leader, with help from Senator John Melcher (D-MT, and the lone veterinarian serving in Congress) and Speaker of the House Tom Foley (D-WA) prevailed in getting ISLA attached to the farm bill, which also shielded it from a veto by President Ronald Reagan.

ISLA was signed into law on December 23, 1985. Among the new requirements: Research facilities must have an institutional oversight committee, including a veterinarian and an unaffiliated member to represent the general community interest in the welfare of the animals. The committee must inspect the laboratories twice a year and report deficiencies. Dogs must be provided with exercise. Nonhuman primates must be provided a physical environment that promotes their psychological well-being. Pain and distress must be minimized in experiments and alternatives to such procedures must be considered. The law also establishes the Animal Welfare Information Center to provide data on alternatives to animals in research, help prevent unintended duplication of experiments, and supply information to train scientists and other personnel in humane practices.

Having failed at preventing passage of this law, the industry, led by NABR, deployed numerous obstacles during the regulatory process. In the end, they succeeded in weakening the final regulations for enforcement and delaying finalization of key sections until 1991.

Before the ISLA regulations were finalized, another amendment to the Animal Welfare Act was introduced and adopted: the Pet Theft Act. While the 1966 law greatly reduced the incidence of such theft, dealers exploited loopholes and companion animals continued to be stolen and sold to labs. Passage of the Pet Theft Act in 1990 required pounds to hold dogs and cats for five days before releasing them to dealers, and the dealers were required to provide written certification regarding each animal’s background, affirming who had bred and raised the animal.

The Future

Ultimately, a 2009 National Academy of Sciences report, Scientific and Humane Issues in the Use of Random Source Dogs and Cats in Research, coupled with the NIH’s phasing out of research on cats and dogs acquired from random source dealers, has nearly ended the industry’s reliance on such animals; however, passage of the Pet Safety and Protection Act is still needed to close the door completely on this trade.

The Animal Welfare Act is the chief federal law for the protection of animals in the United States, regulating the treatment of animals in research, on exhibition, in transport, and by dealers. Unquestionably, it has greatly reduced animal suffering. Nonetheless, much more work is needed. We appreciate the USDA inspectors on the frontline who are documenting violations of the law and those who follow through on their findings to secure justice for the animals. However, there is room for improvement in enforcing the law and ensuring that the punishment for violators is commensurate with the crime and serves as a deterrent.

In addition, an amendment is needed to right the terrible wrong that occurred when Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) led a successful effort to remove rats, mice, and birds (except birds in the pet trade) from coverage under the Animal Welfare Act. These animals constitute more than 90 percent of the animals in research; it is inexcusable to deny them the law’s protections.

Finally, the minimum standards for housing are no longer appropriate and are in urgent need of updating based on current knowledge and published data (including that contained in the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals). The law must continue to grow to keep pace with our growing understanding of animals’ needs.

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